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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

United States Of Tara: "Crackerjack"

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One of the things I’ve always loved about United States Of Tara is that it’s very clear-minded on the way that Tara’s condition affects her family. On other shows, Tara’s alters would just be a wacky thing the family had to put up with (and, indeed, this was the case in the early going on the show), but on this show, the alters are a disruptive force, creating chaos in the life of the Gregsons, particularly when they least need that chaos. They’re bound by the fact that they’re a family and they all love each other, of course, but that isn’t always so easy when faced with a mother who can turn into a horror show version of herself at any given moment.

What’s interesting is that in the early going of the show, the three main alters were all basically ways for Tara to relate better to her family members (or, at least, to what she thought those family members might want). Tee was someone who might enjoy hanging out with Kate. Alice was the perfect homemaker—similarly fond of cooking and other indoor pursuits—for someone like Marshall. And Buck was the kind of drinking buddy Max might enjoy hanging out with. But these weren’t perfect versions of those kinds of people. They were the sorts of gross approximations of what her family would like that Tara’s mind might believably come up with, too perfect in many ways, to the point where their companionship wasn’t necessarily welcome.

And the alters didn’t change. As Marshall and Kate grew up and came into their own identities, Tee and Alice stayed the same. Tee was someone who might have been a good friend to Kate at 15 or 16, but at 19 or 20, it’s less fun to have her show up. Similarly, Marshall’s interests have moved on to filmmaking and his boyfriend (as well as what appears to be an incipient interest in the gay rights movement, though I could be reading too much into things), while Alice remains stuck in homemaking perfection. Just as Chicken is permanently frozen at the age of a small child (and, in my interpretation, the kind of person Charmaine once needed), these other alters are stuck in ways where they can’t evolve to be what Tara’s family members might believably need.

All of this is buildup to tonight’s best scene, where Tee re-emerges after Professor Hatteras (Eddie Izzard, giving great smarm in this role) talks about how DID doesn’t actually exist, how it’s only diagnosed in North America, how it’s a way for people to make excuses for their own bad behavior and refuse to own up to that behavior. (Something tells me Hatteras and Jennifer Melfi would get along famously.) Tee emerges to tell him off on the campus quad, after Tara’s efforts to ask him to set up boundaries (quite reasonably, I thought) fail, but Tee STAYS emerged, and she goes on a drunken bender, culminating in her showing up at the Gregson house, just as Kate has come by to tell her mother that she needs to take this job teaching English in Japan because it’s time for her to start her own life.

One of the first things we saw in the Tara pilot was Kate having fun hanging out with Tee, so it’s fascinating to see her resigned irritation at seeing this alter emerge here. But that irritation grows from irritation to actual, legitimate concern, as Tee jokes about killing Hatteras with a butcher knife, but there’s an edge to the joke and she’s just drunk enough to do it. Tee goes for the car keys, Kate tries to stop her, and a fight ensues. Tee hits Kate hard enough to make her nose bleed, then races for the car. But Kate manages to stop her, pinning her to the ground and yelling at her to stop what she’s doing before she gets Tara in trouble. And then comes the transition back, and Tara sees what Tee—or is it herself?—has done to her daughter, and Kate lets out a restrained sob of “Mommy?” (Props to Brie Larson, who gives the best line reading of this line since Buffy The Vampire Slayer.) It’s a great sequence, and it really lays out just how much this family is always walking on eggshells, even if they seem relatively well-adjusted much of the time.

Outside of the scenes where Tara came into conflict with Hatteras and Tee came into conflict with Kate, however, I found this a weaker episode than the season premiere. In particular, I thought the Marshall storyline was a bit of a waste. I get that the series is probably building to something involving his relationship with Lionel, instead of just having a bunch of stuff happen all at once, but I don’t terribly buy the chemistry between the two actors, and I just wasn’t sure what the point of their film was supposed to be, outside of the basic idea that their film teacher shouldn’t stereotype them because they’re gay (maybe that was it, I guess… these ARE teenagers). I did like the scene where the four guys were brainstorming in class, but it felt like a lot of effort expended on something that didn’t really go anywhere.


Similarly, the idea that Kate suddenly has a yen to go to Japan felt a little abrupt. I get that, again, she’s a teenager who makes decisions on the spur of the moment, but to have her scanning a Web site about the program (before walking in on Charmaine and Neil having sex), then immediately go to her deciding she wants to do it felt like it went very quickly. She’s thinking about it, then she’s really mad at her parents for not immediately agreeing to her demands. Maybe it’s because I haven’t been a teenager for a while now, but this all felt like it was tossed in there to have some external conflict that could be resolved by that final fight.

But I do like how the season is turning its focus to Neil and the fact that he’s this 30-something guy who seems more than happy to work in a landscaping job for the rest of his life, with his best friend as his boss. When Max sells the company to be able to keep his head above water, his new corporate overlords don’t want him bringing Neil along, so he ends up having to fire his best friend. I liked the way that the show played both men as being “in the right,” here. Neil doesn’t want to be fired; Max doesn’t want to fire him. The conflict that erupted between them felt believable, and while I’m not sure why Neil chose sex as the time to tell Charmaine he’d been fired, I liked that she gave him a quest for the year: He’s going to be a father, now; if he wants to be her boyfriend/husband as well, he’ll need to make something of himself beyond enjoyable slacker dude. And maybe that’s the hidden theme of this season: Everybody’s trying to grow up, but their own baggage keeps getting in the way.


Stray observations:

  • I really liked that shot of Kate and Marshall sitting on the green box (I’m sorry, but I’ll never remember what these things are supposed to be called) surrounded by power lines in the middle of nowhere. Without the mountains in the background, you almost could have mistaken it for Kansas in early fall.
  • I DO like what Izzard brings to the show and I DO like Hatteras’ attitude about DID. But I’m a little skeptical he’d be that mean to Tara in class. Granted, Shoshanna DID take over his class (and it seems like she and he come from different schools of thought on several matters beyond DID), but it almost seems like he’s blatantly trying to push Tara’s buttons. I’m sure we’ll find out what his game is in weeks to come.
  • I like the way that the transition noises are far subtler this season, to the point where they’re almost buried deep inside the soundtrack.